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All About the Civic Hackathon

posted: , by Meg Gray
tags: About the Library | Programs & Events | Adults | Seniors | Business | Science & Technology

Saturday, September 12: turned out to be a beautiful late Summer day. Sam and Sonya arrived at PPL around 7:30, bright and early, and got the coffee brewing. We put a few last minute arrangements in order– printing some presenter bios, printing schedules for ourselves and the team, and before long Anita, Denise, Janell and Ruth arrived. With the whole team here (and the swag bags from Maine Health!) we really buckled down to make sure the hackathon participants would have a nice environment for the day.

Next in was Beth Bordowitz, the president of the board of trustees at Portland Public Library– she was on hand to welcome the city manager, and show support of the PPL organization. Before long the hackers started arriving– with 22 people registered, we quickly sprang into positions and began to welcome everyone. Ruth and Denise stationed themselves at the front entrance, Sam sat at the welcoming table and checked people in, and Sonya, Anita, and Janell buzzed about tidying the breakfast table and making sure everything else was ready. Shortly before 9am, Jon Jennings arrived, and the rest of the team joined the hackers to listen to his opening remarks. Looking around the room as he spoke, there was total captivation and a lot of head nodding and smiles.

Jon Jennings: Among various political roles in Washington, DC, such as serving as the Acting Assistant Attorney General, and working under President Clinton, Mr. Jennings also held coaching and management positions in Boston with the Boston Celtics. His varied background also includes owning a frozen yogurt shop at the Maine Mall, and he admitted to not needing this position with the City of Portland, but felt personally driven to work to help our city.

Mr. Jennings had a lot of great things to say about Portland, but delved into his talk by describing its shortcomings, both from by city government, such as the responsiveness of his staff to answer questions posed by citizens, to the technological failings Portland is facing. The city is “behind the curveball” in many aspects related to technology, and though he was able to pinpoint funding as an issue, community driven events like this hackathon eliminate monetary concerns. With that, he really got inspirational– let’s make Portland a “tech hub of the nation” was my personal favorite quip. He talked about ways in which Portland, and government in general, can leverage technology to aid in the democratic process. Democracy isn’t about always agreeing on things, it is polite conversation and has forward movement. Politics in all forms of government have become uncivil in the last 40 years, and that needs to change.

The civic hackathon aims to help!

Next, we got an overview of the day from Anita Ruff, who gave specifics on the problem at hand: how to we engage people in civic conversations who can’t make traditional meetings. We went around the room and had people with existing ideas describe their proposed project, and people without projects simply introduced themselves and shared their interests and skills. After that, we asked people to spend time talking with each other, in hopes organic groups and similar ideas would meld. They did!

We had three cohesive groups that emerged–

  1. One group chose to tackle the problem from a very technological perspective, thinking about utilizing things like mesh networking, internet relay chat (IRC), GPL, GNU, and a lot of other very confusing concepts to non-programmers.
  2. Another group came at the problem from a very civic perspective– how to make public spaces more inviting, how to encourage dialogue, how to eliminate obstacles, and how to ask the right questions. This group seemed very philosophical, and had a lot of intense debate through just the opening hours.
  3. A third group came together by thinking about online bulletin boards where organizations can automatically upload their flyers. Programming languages like Ruby, PHP, and Python were tossed around as a way to build out this concept.

And with that, people buckled in! We broke for a delicious Otto’s pizza lunch at noon, and heard from Mike Roylos who attended another civic hackathon here in Portland, and came away with not only the winning concept, but a product so viable it has become his day job: The Cigarette Buttler!

People got back down to work after lunch, and we could really sense the energy going on inside each room. We put out a snack table, and took turns staffing it and being on hand to answer any questions from the hackers. It was also a chance to walk outside and stretch our legs, and check out the other civic activity going on–Portland’s second annual greenfest! This big event generated some additional traffic for us, mostly comments that “aw, I wish I could have come.” Though there were a few, “can I have one of those cookies?” We reserved the sugar for the hackers, though.

The afternoon unfolded steadily. We The energy stayed high through the predictable afternoon dip. I saw lots of people reaching for the freshly brewed coffee Anita brought out around 3pm, and I myself took a 5 minute power nap at my desk around 4:30. Just in time for the food truck to arrive at 5pm to start serving dinner! As people emerged from their rooms, we encouraged them to check out the food offerings and order their fill. The teams were so dedicated, most hackers took their dinners right back to their workstations and continued to hack! Meanwhile, the team members talked shop with the food truck owners, and learned their concept started as a community project, too! The first judge arrived, and was able to catch up on how the day was going over a paper basket of crispy brussels sprouts.

After dinner plates were cleared, we moved the rest of the activity towards the auditorium and geared up for the awards. The remaining two judges arrived around 6:45, and with the library officially closed to the public, we could sense something big was coming. For me, the last thirty minutes before everyone sat down to present their projects was the hardest. A 15 hour day of work is hard enough, but knowing we were about to see the culmination of our ILEAD planning was torturous! However, we remained calm and collected (maybe due too to the fact the was cake coming), and helped each of the teams ensure their presentations connected with our projector system.

Finally, at 7:30pm, we introduced ourselves again, giving thanks to our awesome mentor, Ruth, and turned it over to the judges and the teams. Looking back, we definitely needed to have given time limits for presentations. But the energy and enthusiasm from everyone was so high, it was interesting to have it be self-limiting, too.

First up: BetsyRo

Next:Team Dolphin

Lastly: AllaBoard

All Aboard

This group is working on an app called All Aboard that would assemble flyers for non-profits/charity organizations around town. They want to make it easy for organizations to upload their flyers and for individuals to ask questions directly to groups that interest them. The main topics that they see for the app are in arts/culture, health, community (for instance, Greenfest that happened last weekend), sports/rec–also they would like to include information from the city and library!

Their vision is to work with the library on this project, if possible. The ultimate goal is to display the flyers from TV displays like the library information is available now, although they would appreciate the chance to be included on the library computers, for instance, so that patrons could easily access our information. They wonder if perhaps the city might be interested in hosted a similar service for people, after noticing that there were several other sites similar to theirs, but that many suffered from a lack of participation; “we want to make sure that our message(s) get out to the general public.”


Comments from the developer, Scott Maccallum:

[ Many of you have asked me what my profile background picture is about. Last Saturday a partner and I participated in a hackathon competition. We had from 8:30 AM to 8:00 PM to write a free and open source computer program that helped people with time constraints or other impediments with participating civilly in the democratic process. I had already conceived and written rough prove of concept code that sort of worked while the first speaker presented. Later my partner, Andrew (after meeting for the first time) and I decided to work together. Andrew started with the creation of the Web and Internet Relay Chat client portion of the project while I got the Java framework and prototype bot going. Once I was done with that, Andrew contributed a nifty array feature to the bot. All in all a good day of work. We were rewarded first place and $1,500 in seed money for future development of the project, Betsyro. The name Betsyro is a pun on Betsy (Ro)ss and Betsy (Ro)bot. I couldn’t resist following the programmer tradition of using a pun for the name of my programming project. 🙂 ]

The Betsyro source code repository is at GitHub:

My partner Andrew and I are meeting Tuesday at Hack Portland to discuss how to move forward with the project. I’m also looking forward to receiving more input from others about how they would like the project to evolve (features) and learning more about the seed money. Betsyro lives! 🙂

*Winning Team that will receive $1,500 in seed money to continue product development*

Team Dolphin

This group conceptualized meeting software. Small groups, or meetings, will be tasked with answering questions (possibly around civic topics, but it can open up to school and organizational use, too). There would be a tablet that users submit their responses through. This was developed by a Baxter Academy teacher, Hal, and his student, Ben, and they thought perhaps they could use it to be one of their year long experiential learning projects. Ben gave most of the presentation, which impressed the audience since he was easily the youngest participant. The judges suggested a that maybe there is a segment of the business community that would use this kind of product – for market research or other in depth feedback solicitation.



Gearing up for Sep-STEM-ber!

posted: , by PPL
tags: Programs & Events | Adults | Teens | Kids & Families | Seniors | Science & Technology

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and is used to refer collectively to any subjects within these fields—everything from botany to robotics. Next month, PPL will kick off some seriously STEM-centric programming for kids, teens, adults and families. Happy Sep-STEM-ber!

A 3D printer is coming to the Public Computing department! 3D printing is a process of layering a special kind of plastic (called “filament”) according to a design file. Meet our model, the Makerbot Replicator 2 here, and check out tons of possible creations at Thingiverse. Stay tuned for more information about opportunities to see the Makerbot in action and to submit your own files for printing!

Building with Legos can teach young people about STEM concepts like geometry, mechanics, and the spirit of invention… but it’s not just for children! Four Lego clubs will start the first full week of September:

Children (ages 7 to 12): Tuesdays, 3:30-5

Teens (ages 13 to 19): Wednesdays, 2:30-4

Adults (18+): Thursdays, 5:30-7

Families @ Riverton (all ages): Saturdays, 11-12:30

PPL will host Digital Diligence, a series of six workshops dealing with online safety and privacy, at the end of September. The programs will cover topics like creating strong passwords, Facebook security, and cyberbullying. Check out the full list with specific dates and times here (and note that registration is required for a few).

Our lunchtime science cafes will also continue next month. On September 17th, stop by to hear about birds from researchers from the Biodiversity Research Institute. The following week’s topic is the science of addiction, presented by Dr. Ed Bilsky from UNE. More info.

Keep an eye out for fresh STEM book lists, an upcoming fiber workshop for teens, and a microscope patrons will be able to check out and take home. And finally, while all this cool new stuff is going on, don’t forget about ongoing individual computer tutoring and Girl Gamer Saturdays for teens.


Crave Radiance: August Staff Picks

posted: , by Elizabeth Hartsig
tags: Library Collections | Programs & Events | Recommended Reads | Adults | Teens | Kids & Families | Seniors | Art & Culture


Elizabeth Alexander's poetry at PPL. Her memoir, "The Light of the World," is a staff pick for August.

Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry on shelf at PPL. Her memoir, “The Light of the World,” is a staff pick for August.


  • It’s the end of August! Even if you’ve just been cramming in summer activities by the kayak-load, don’t fret. There’ll still be plenty to read in the coming months. Portland Public Library’s dedicated book groups continue to meet throughout September. On September 1st, the Peaks book group will discuss Crow Lake. On September 10th, Riverton’s group will tackle Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. On September 18th, the Main Library’s Friday Night Book will discuss Skippy Dies. And on September 19th, the LGBTQ Teen Book Group will discuss “I’ll Give You the Sun.”
  •  On September 15th at the Main Library, we’ll also be starting a 5-book discussion series through the Maine Humanities Council with facilitator Michael Bachem, PhD. The series is called “Exploring Human Boundaries: Literary Perspectives on Health Care Providers and Their Patients.”  From September-December, we’ll be reading The Plague, Wit, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. No need to check out the books: you can pick up copies of each title at the Reader’s Advisory Desk at the Main Library or at each discussion group. To register for the group, contact Elizabeth Hartsig at or 871-1700 ext. 705. 


Read on for August Staff Picks: we’ve got Shakespeare-performing zoo animals, bumbling protagonists and famous writer’s homes, an ominous forest, much coming of age, love in dystopia, and…how to hand-build a Cob Cottage.

 August Staff Picks

Children’s Fiction

 Laura’s Pick


The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth, by Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo, Illustrator

How wonderful and refreshing it is to know that a story that has been re-told hundred of times before can still be presented in an unique and hilarious way! This book is a perfect introduction for young readers – the story of Macbeth is here, but told in a funny, engaging, and not-so-scary way. Packed with asides that would make The Bard himself proud, you will be left hoping this dynamic author and illustrator duo puts their spin on all of Shakespeare’s work.

-Laura, Children’s and Teen Services


Carrie’s Pick

augustcarrieRed Butterfly, by A.L. Sonnichsen

If you loved Wonder and Brown Girl Dreaming you will be in for a treat when you read Red Butterfly, by A.L. Sonnichsen. A moving novel in verse, set in China, Sonnichsen’s “Red Butterfly” allows us a window into the world of abandoned Chinese children. The heart of “Red Butterfly” is the story of 11-year-old Kara, a girl who is born with “one blunt hand/ with two short nubs/ instead of fingers,” abandoned, and relegated to a secret life with the undocumented American woman who has raised her. Kara navigates her complex world with determination to live a “normal life” and a growing understanding of what that life may look like.  A story of identity and family, concise and lovingly written, Kara’s honesty allows us to see the struggles of these forgotten children.



Now so clear,

all the hiding

and whispering

and bundling up

 to go


so a foreign woman

wouldn’t be recognized, 

wouldn’t be asked 

for her paperwork.


Big love,

stupid love, 

just like Zhang Laoshi said.


-Carrie, Children’s Services


Teen Fiction

Kelley’s Pick

augustkelleySimon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli

I’ve been reading a lot of heavy stuff this summer, so it was a treat to pick up this sweet and smart novel about a young man outed before he’s ready to be. Sixteen year old Simon Spier knows that he’s gay, he just hasn’t felt the need to tell anyone yet. His only confidant is his anonymous email pen pal, Blue. His exchanges with Blue are becoming so preoccupying that the very careful and private Simon risks using a public computer at his school library one day and then forgets to sign out of his email. It just so happens that the next person to use the computer is a classmate who is desperate to get a date with Simon’s magnetic best friend, Abby. So begins a short tale of botched blackmail that lands Simon’s most personal secrets on the school’s Tumblr. What follows is the story of how Simon’s coming-out impacts not just his relationship with Blue, but with each of his friends and family members.

Though completely current, there is something timeless about the way that Simon experiences high school, family, friendships, and first love. The only flaw I can find is that perhaps Simon is just a little too adjusted for your average teen? Is the adversity he faces realistic? Is the ending just a little too precious? That’s probably just me… you’ll eat this story up like a plate of waffles. Highly recommended for those who enjoy contemporary YA fiction with wit and heart a la John Green.

-Kelley, Teen Librarian


Adult Fiction

Ellen’s Pick

augustellenAn Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke

I came across this title while surfing the Web. (Surfing is really the wrong word; what I do is more like water skiing and then falling off every few feet, swimming around looking at the underwater life, then popping back up to speed off before the next plunge!) The title was the first thing to catch my fancy — I mean, who wouldn’t want to know where this might go?! — followed by a comparison of the hapless main character Sam Pulsifer with the “hero” one of my all-time favorite picaresque novels, Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The story opens with Pulcifer doing time for the accidental burning of Emily Dickenson’s Amherst, MA house, a fire which took the life of two people who were making love on the poet’s bed at the time. The writer takes the reader on a cockeyed trek through the mess of this clueless man’s life as copycat arsonists takes up where he left off, setting fire to the houses of other literary figures. Will Pulsifer figure out who the real culprits are? Full of absurdist humor and literary allusions, this book is a fun summer escapade.

-Ellen, Burbank Branch Manager


Jim’s Pick



The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 Edition, ed. by Rich Horton

Really enjoying the Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction stories 2015. One of my favorite compilations that happen annually.  The Elizabeth Bear entry is particularly strong. (Authors also include staff favorites Cory Doctorow, Kelly Link, Yoon Ha Lee, and Jo Walton).

-Jim, Head of Reference and Information Services



Emily R’s Pick


Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

This book is a great return to epic fantasy, complete with forbidding forests, unknown magics, political intrigue, and a dark history underlying the characters’ day to day existence.  The friendship between two girls drives as much of the story as the search for answers about the forest and its ominous creep that occasionally eats villages overnight.  Vividly rendered, this is a lush novel that will sweep you off your feet, great for summer reading!

-Emily, Teen Services



Susanne’s Pick



The Girls from Corona Del Mar, by Rufi Thorpe

I recommend the book The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe (2014). It is a coming of age story set in southern California. Two girls, Mia and Lorrie Ann, grow up together as best friends, in spite of different family backgrounds. Their upbringings shape their adult lives and the choices they make.

But as the story unfolds it turns out that everything isn’t really as it first seems and this is reflected in the girls’ different life paths. A book light enough for a day at the beach, but with enough substance for a rainy day.

-Susanne, Lending Services Supervisor

Brandie’s Pick

augustbrandieThe Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood

I love the worlds that Margaret Atwood creates. I wasn’t initially drawn to the characters but the story and setting were both so captivating that I was hooked from the first page.

Stan and Charmaine are living in their car and barely surviving after an economic collapse. When they hear about The Positron Project they are immediately intrigued, even though they have to sign up for life. Naturally, if something is too good to be true it usually is. In true Atwood fashion, this twisted dystopian love story has some interesting turns and all is not as it seemed. Though Positron at first appears as a Utopian society, as the story progresses much darker intentions are revealed.


For those who do not like comedies: “…comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness. She prefers the more dramatic shows where everyone’s getting kidnapped…or shut up in a dark hole, and you aren’t supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to be upset, the way you’d be if it was happening to you. Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people.” -from The Heart Goes Last 

-Brandie, Reference


Adult Non-Fiction

Zeb’s Pick

augustzebThe Hand-Sculpted House: a Philosophical and Practical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage, by Ianto Evans, Linda Smiley, and Michael Smith

If you find that an inordinate number of your internet searches land you in the Mother Earth News archives, The Hand Sculpted House is probably your kind of book. (Inversely, if you like this book, we also keep plenty of Mother Earth News on hand).

The Hand-Sculpted House is a great handbook on many elements of DIY home construction. While the book is primarily about the creation and use of cob it touches on numerous materials, methods, and designs in the field of home construction. With an optimistic undertone of consumer consciousness and general thriftiness it makes for some pleasant reading. Start to finish, it does well in balancing the technical aspects of construction with a lighter philosophical side of home ownership. Even if you are not looking to go fully off the grid, thumb through and I bet you will find some welcome additions to your home life. I personally found this book to be a fresh break from the industry norms of synthetics, volatile organic compounds, and the generally hazardous materials that are predominantly available. Numerous times throughout this book I had to stop and ponder how effortlessly it made sense out of problems that I have always accepted as obstructions to deal with rather than solve. I hope you will find The Hand-Sculpted House equally as valuable.

-Zeb, Maintenance


Hazel’s Pick

augusthazelThe Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, by Marci Shore

The Taste of Ashes combines investigations into the tumultuous twentieth century history of Eastern Europe with an account of the author’s experiences, primarily in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the death of a close friend that brought her there. If the meat of Shore’s book is the letters pulled from freshly opened archives and interviews with political figures both detested and revered, then its spirit is her own narrative of loss and transience. In these more intimate moments, Shore’s musings reflect the era of post-communist transition and the challenges faced by citizens seeking to reclaim and rebuild personal and national identities.

-Hazel, Reference


Elizabeth’s Pick

augustelizabethThe Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander (2015)

More than anything so far this year, I loved The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander. Her book is a memoir, and it remembers and celebrates her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died suddenly in 2012. It is love story and testimony: Ficre Ghebreyesus was a painter, father, chef, music-lover, book-lover, language-lover, and deeply good-hearted man. He was, warmly, “He who loved to wear the color pink. He whose children made him laugh until he cried.”

With all the splits and separations of this life, it feels somehow rare to hear of a love that works through the years: years of laughter, coffee breaks, two beloved sons…Casa dolce casa was their home, and the portrait of this home, marriage, and family is so moving, and so full of light.

Poet and Professor Alexander’s book is lyrical and slender- some chapters are just a few stark, cutting sentences- yet it’s rich with culture, music, recipes, and bookish references, pointing rewardingly to the wondrous variety both of what this man loved and what Alexander loves: the “Fables of Faubus,” Jimmy Scott’s version of “Heaven,” the writing of Yale art historian Sylvia Boone, fichi d’india (prickly pear fruit), the story of the magician Black Herman, pink shirts, shrimp barka, Lucille Clifton, Rilke’s Book of Hours, Derek Walcott, Yusef Lateef’s “The Plum Blossom,” Melvin Dixon’s poem “Fingering the Jagged Grains.” Alexander and Ghebreyesus’ collective loves and interests are a treasure trove for the curious reader. “He was a man of maps and atlas; he was a cartographer and a cataloguer; he was a squirrel with nuts in his cheeks.” After her husband’s death, Alexander writes, he becomes the “ghost of all bookstores,” bookstores that she must enter, now, without him. Why isn’t he there?

Alexander weighs in not just about love and art and music and memory but also on race and death, on subjects that are gripping our people. She transcribes a lecture she gives at Yale a week after Ficre dies: “It’s a fact: black people in this country die more easily, at all ages, across genders. The black artist in some way, spoken or not, contends with death, races against it, writes amongst its ghosts who we call ancestors…The black folk poets who are our ancestors spoke true when they said every shut eye ain’t asleep, every goodbye ain’t gone.”

I looked up Ghebreyesus’ paintings online as I was reading, and they are beautiful. He subscribed to what a woman called in his work “tutto,” as Alexander describes it, “an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.”  Some time after their father’s death Alexander asks her sons: “How can we be so happy, when we have been through so much?” And she answers her question in the same breath:  “The forest is not denuded. The trees are standing tall.”

Lest I write on…and on, in my enthusiasm forever, I’ll wrap up, with the gratitude I have for all good books. (Gratitude I could not make any smaller). The Light of the World brims with joy and grief and celebration and wisdom, and most days in this life, when I get to read, tutto, that’s all I could ever really want.

Thanks for reading.

-Elizabeth, Reference

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